Project to replace Stephen Foster statue moves forward, but Pittsburgh Art Commission isn’t sold on the location

Two city art groups want a statue of a black woman — but don’t agree on where to put it.

Before the Stephen Foster statue's removal, pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose memorial could replace it surrounded the base.

Before the Stephen Foster statue's removal, pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose memorial could replace it surrounded the base.

Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Members of the Pittsburgh Art Commission support adding public art to honor women, especially women of color, but are concerned about doing so at the former site of the Stephen Foster statue.

However, a city task force aiming to do just that stressed it would be meaningful to honor a black woman at that site, and the project has community support.

In some ways, it’s an answer to the hurtful statue and a way to provide a healing solution, Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto and a member of the Task Force on Women in Public Art, told The Incline.

The task force launched a search in March to find a black woman to honor at the site of the Foster statue. The controversial Foster statue was removed from its Oakland location on April 26, following years of debate and months of heightened controversy about the statue. Critics pointed to its offensive and outdated depiction of a black man in tattered clothing seated at the feet of Foster, a Lawrenceville native.

For now, the statue is headed to storage. It's unclear where its permanent home will be.

For now, the statue is headed to storage. It's unclear where its permanent home will be.

Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline

Last week, members of the Task Force on Women in Public Art updated the art commission about the project. Per the commission’s website, the organization “administers the review process, which includes preliminary and final approvals” for all art on or above city-owned property.

The concept is a “tremendous idea,” and women, especially of of color, should be recognized in public art, Andrew Moss, a member of the art commission who was acting chair at that June 27 meeting told The Incline. However, he said the commission’s main concern was the site of the former Stephen Foster statue.

Using that site might take away the significance of the new artwork and make the discussion more about Foster instead of about the new art and who it honors, Moss said. He added that commissioners said there are numerous other sites throughout the city for the statue but didn’t suggest specific sites.

“The commission was pretty clear in discouraging it,” Moss said of the former Foster site, but added that anything can be proposed.

Powell, who is also a Who’s Next honoree, told The Incline that the task force will meet again to review the ideas and concerns from the commission but would still like to purse the former Foster site as a location.

She said next steps are for the task force to create an Request For Proposals with the commission as well as go back to them for multiple levels of review. While no timeline is set, Powell said she hopes to start the process of selecting an artist by the end of the summer.

Adding women to Pittsburgh’s public art

When the task force first started, it wasn’t specifically about replacing the Foster statue, but adding women of color to public art, Powell pointed out. However, this project became the first for the group.

Powell previously told The Incline that when they considered the narrative and the concerns about what the Foster statue represented, replacing that statue with this new one would be a way to show progress in Pittsburgh.

Many community members have responded positively to the project, she said, adding that it’s not a knee-jerk response and the task force is working to make sure the art conveys inclusivity and community values.

In addition to an online feedback form that launched in March, the task force held five community meetings in April and May for input on the new statue. As part of their presentation to the art commission, the task force reviewed that feedback.

They started with a list of seven women as possible honorees. Per a PowerPoint provided to The Incline, there were 1,200 votes either online or in person. Of those, the top three were:

  • Jean Hamilton Walls, the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at University of Pittsburgh (312)
  • Gwendolyn Elliott, the first black female police commander in Pittsburgh and founder of Gwen’s Girls (197)
  • Selma Burke, an artist who was a sculptor-in-residence at the Carnegie Institute and opened neighborhood arts centers (195)

Residents could also make suggestions for women not on the list, and there were 129 of those. The most — 44 — were for Mary Lou Williams, a renowned jazz musician who grew up in East Liberty. After that, no one woman received more than seven suggestions.

Another idea that’s came up repeatedly is honoring a group of women, such as black female jazz musicians from the Hill District, Powell said.

Community members emphasized that they want to stay a part of the process and be involved until the end, she said. Residents also stressed a need for the art to reflect the community and the city’s diversity as well as to stimulate learning.

It’s those community values and more that will go into the RFP, Powell said.